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Ooh, a blog post! Ann must be avoiding writing fiction!

Right you are!

So, my last post about first person led at least two commenters (Asakiyume– on LJ and Megs on to mention that first person doesn’t need some sort of constructed excuse, or logistical framework, and what about stories like Sunset Boulevard or The Lovely Bones? And of course they’re right.

That got me thinking about assumptions we make–as readers and as writers–about third person narratives. The argument is that first person requires an occasion or at least the possibility of an occasion where the narrator is actually telling the story. That’s okay as far as it goes–I don’t think it actually goes very far, truth be told, but I’ll entertain the notion for the sake of argument.

Who is telling the story of, say, “To Build a Fire” and how does the narrator know what happened, given that there’s only one character and he dies at the end, quite alone?

Did you ever ask that question? I’m betting not. Because, I think, we’ve got this idea of stories in third person as being neutral and objective, like it’s pure narrative coming out of thin air. But there’s always someone telling the story, whether it’s obviously someone who was obviously present, or not. So what makes third person any different from first person in this regard? Why are there no faux-prohibitions against writing any stories at all in which the protagonist is the only character and dies an unwitnessed death?

Or even less dramatically–if we need that sort of “logical” framework to tell a story, how is it that any narrator who is not the character herself can tell us what’s in the thoughts of that character?

The answer is, they can’t. No actual, existing narrator can. Fiction conventionally ignores this, so that we can tell stories about men who die because they’re alone and can’t build fires, or tell stories about the intimate psychological states of various characters, or whatever it is we need to do. First person is really no less able to take advantage of convention, ignore it or twist it, or whatever the writer wants to do. As long as it’s done well, and it works, then it’s all good.

I think ignoring that aspect of third person–that whether or not the text acknowledges it directly, there’s always a narrator, always some entity with its own point of view telling the story–isn’t a particularly good idea. Particularly if you’re interested in working with Omniscient, which isn’t really fashionable right now, and to judge from the two slushpiles I see regularly, isn’t a tool in a lot of aspiring writers’ toolkits, or at least not one they know how to use effectively. Omniscient isn’t just pure story and exposition coming from out of the air, all-knowing and utterly impartial. I mean, sometimes it pretends to be that, but it isn’t, and IMO understanding that is important for being able to handle omni well.

I also think it’s a good idea to stop and think about all the “third person” stories we tell and hear just in our daily lives. Casting them in third person can make them seem completely objective, but every story is told from a point of view, and no single point of view is completely objective and impartial. I think it’s important to realize that, just generally.

Thinking about this led me off on a tangent. You know stories like, oh, The Worm Ouroborus, or A Princess of Mars, or Looking Back, or…there are bunches of them. They want to be stories about someone in a Fantastic world–the far future, Mars, Mercury, etc, wherever. If someone were writing those stories these days–well, they’d be very different stories, no one would write those stories these days, because “these days” are their own time with their own concerns and preoccupations, but that’s a whole other digression–if someone were writing those stories these days, would she bother making some present day person have a vision in which the story set on another planet could unfold? Not likely–she’d just tell us what happened, plain as that. Would she bother having the main character fall asleep and wake up in the future? Maybe–but she’d be more likely to say, “I want to write about the future!” and just…start the story there. And even if she went with waking up in the future, she’d likely not bother with the “And then I woke up!” ending, thus explaining how we could have received the story to begin with. Because we don’t actually need that. Would she bother to make the main character mysteriously fall into a torpor and wake on Mars–and then mysteriously wake up again on Earth? Maybe–but then again, she’d maybe just start “One day on Mars…”

I’m thinking it used to be much more common for writers to construct those sorts of logical frames around fantastic stories, the issue of “how are we hearing this tale to begin with” was a question they felt needed an answer.* But it’s not one we’ve really been interested in, as readers or writers, for quite some time, particularly in F&SF. Who cares how we know the story? All that really matters is the story itself.

Which doesn’t mean thinking about that framework isn’t potentially useful, or no one should use that sort of frame because it’s old fashioned or whatever–use whatever seems good to you! But it’s been a long time since anyone really worried overmuch about how a guy on Mars could give us a first person account of his adventures if he was on Mars and we were here–or how adventures on Mars could become known to us at all, first or third person. It’s not a matter of every story needing some sort of justification, it’s not a matter of rules about what could or couldn’t be told to us under what conditions. It’s a matter of what you’re trying to do, of what works for the particular story you’re working on.
*I have not done extensive research to back up this assertion, so it may turn out to be entirely incorrect.